Across the country, pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses is being censored. School administrations have launched investigations of numerous student groups for engaging in activities they deem to be critical of Israel. The backlash by school officials comes at a time when support is growing among students and faculty for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end the military occupation of Palestine. College administrations are becoming so hostile to criticism of Israel that several legal groups, including Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter this month to 140 universities warning them that efforts to stifle pro-Palestine activism is unconstitutional.
At Loyola University Chicago, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) received a temporary suspension and endured a two-month-long investigation this fall after several Palestinian Students tried to register at a table promoting Birthright Israel, a program that sends Jewish students from all over the world to visit Israel. Students affiliated with the University’s Hillel, an on-campus Jewish Zionist organization, claimed that they were harassed and threatened by the Palestinian students. However, according the President of Loyola’s SJP chapter Nadeen Darweech, the students attempting to register took videos of the incident showing that the interaction was peaceful, which they provided to administrators during the investigation.
The University dropped five of the six charges against the SJP, which included bias-motivated discrimination, harassment and bullying, and violations of demonstration policies. The group was found to only have failed to register the demonstration with the University and has been put on academic probation, meaning that the student group will be unable to request money from the Student Activity Fund for the rest of the academic year, They must also attend dialogue training with university staff. The SJP is challenging the decision.
The punishment against the SJP for failing to register a demonstration is much harsher than the punishment against students from the Hillel, who the University determined violated school policy by failing to register their table. The Hillel students will be required to train other student groups how to properly register for tabling events. They will not be put on probation.
Last spring, the SJP successfully pushed two divestment resolutions through the student senate, which were eventually vetoed by the student government president. I spoke with the SJP’s President Nadeen Darweech about her club’s activism and their battle with the University’s administration.
Alex Ellefson: Why did the Students for Justice in Palestine target the Birthright Israel table? Did you expect the University to respond the way it did?
Nadeen Darweech: So the action was not actually orchestrated by Students for Justice in Palestine. It was a decision by individual Palestinian students to go up to the table, a lot of whom are not active in SJP.
The reason that Palestinians at Loyola were angry about the Birthright table and decided to line up and try to register was to display the discriminatory nature of the program. Jewish students worldwide can return to Israel on the basis of their birthright and Palestinian students, whose families are indigenous to the land, do not have that right.
A lot of my friends have been turned away because when you Google their name, everything is about Palestinian activism. There are articles they wrote about Palestine or articles that they were even mentioned in. And because of that, they were deemed a security threat by the Israeli government and they are sent away to wherever they flew in from.
Do you feel like the University is trying to silence pro-Palestine activism on campus?
This is not the first time the administration has cracked down on Palestinian activism at Loyola. Senators affiliated with SJP from the United Student Government Association have received emails in the past from administrators warning them to stop talking about Palestine on social media. When we did divestment last year, the President of Loyola Father Garanzini and the Provost made statements that really alienated SJP and made it seem like we were anti-Semitic and we pursued the divestment resolution out of nowhere. Instead of praising political activism, they completely alienated us and made us sound like monsters.
The President of the school called your divestment campaign anti-Semitic?
He essentially implied that it was anti-Semitic. He said it took Jewish faculty and students by surprise. And by saying that Jewish students and faculty were insulted by the divestment resolution, it implies that all Jewish students and faculty have the same political beliefs and we strongly reject that notion because there are a lot of Palestine solidarity activists that are Jewish.
The SJP and the Hillel students were both found guilty of similar violations. But the SJP received a much harsher punishment. What does that mean to you?
The decision notification that was sent to me and the President of Hillel detailed that while Hillel and SJP were found responsible for very similar allegations, the SJP knew proper protocols but deliberately did not follow them. Meanwhile, it said Hillel were not aware that they had to submit an activity request for those tables.
So, in the administration’s eyes, Hillel made an innocent mistake. But since SJP had followed proper protocols regarding the registration of demonstrations in the past, this time, they thought we deliberately chose not to.
But this wasn’t even an SJP action?
Yeah, absolutely. All pro-Palestine speech on campus is automatically attributed to the SJP. And that is a special treatment we receive. So SJP is essentially being held accountable for pro-Palestine speech that wasn’t actually orchestrated by us.
So you’re now on probation for an action that you didn’t even organize. What does probation mean? If you commit another violation, then the club is suspended?
Yeah. So essentially SJP is not able to request money from the student activity funds until May 29, 2015. Essentially, that means we would have to raise our own money. It’s a very steep punishment.
It’s definitely going to make it a lot more difficult to have events but we’re not going to let the inability to ask for funding deter our activism on campus.
How much did the SJP rely on money from the Student Activity Fund last year?
SJP was entirely reliant on money from the Student Activity Fund. But just because we were entirely reliant before doesn’t mean we can’t find alternative ways to advance our mission statement and continue political activism. There are plenty of student groups across the United States that don’t have any money and they are very successful in their activism on campus. And I strongly believe that SJP Loyola will be too.
Does this probation have a chilling effect on the SJP?
I find it very scary. If we were put on probation for an event that was not orchestrated by SJP, it scares me to think what else they could hold us responsible for.
The SJP is also being asked to undergo dialogue training? Do you think that’s necessary since the other charges, like harassment and bullying, were dropped?
It’s actually ridiculous. Because the notion that SJP has to participate in inter-group dialogue training implies that we need training on civility. It relies on the stereotype of Arabs and Muslims being angry and unable to communicate calmly or in a rational fashion.